Interview: Filmmaker John Hamburg on Male Friendships in Me Time, Working with Legends and Writing a Script for Kevin Hart

Writer/director John Hamburg is a man made of comedy. In particular, his films seem to center on the often uncomfortable way we interact with friends and family, especially during times of change. After making the solid indie comedy Safe Men, he grew in prominence in Hollywood, having a hand in writing Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Zoolander before getting back into directing with Along Came Polly. But when he stepped away from working with Ben Stiller, he made what might be his finest and funniest work, I Love You, Man, the uproarious tale of a man who forces himself to make a new best friend so he can have a best man at his wedding. For all its outrageous humor, the film is quite honest in its depiction of male friendships.

Since then, Hamburg has written and directed Why Him?, about a father learning to let go of his grown daughter as she prepares to get married, and co-written the Kevin Hart hit Night School, before diving into executive producing and frequently directing episodes of the Walton Goggins-led series “The Unicorn.” Now Hamburg is back with Kevin Hart, writing and directing yet another comedy about male friendship, Me Time, which is now streaming on Netflix. 

The film co-stars Mark Wahlberg as Hart’s best friend Huck, whom he hasn’t seen in a while. Since their last wild encounter, Hart’s Sonny has gotten married to Maya (Regina Hall), they have two kids, and he’s a stay-at-home dad while his architect wife works out of the home. When she volunteers to take the kids for a week, Sonny decides to spend Huck’s birthday with him, and that decision kick-starts a series of wild times, misadventures and general mayhem that help Sonny learn a few things about himself, his life, and his best friend—all themes that fit right in line with many of  Hamburg’s other projects.

I’ve had the chance to interview Hamburg a couple times over the years, most memorably at a Q&A I moderated for I Love You, Man in front of a packed house at the Brew & View/Vic Theater, along with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. It was quite a night. But it’s been a few years since we’ve spoken, so it was nice to be reminded what a great conversationalist he is, especially when he digs deep about adjusting his approach to writing and directing depending on the comedic stylings of his actors. Please enjoy my talk with John Hamburg…

Hi John. It’s good to see you again after 13 years over a steak dinner in Chicago, following shortly by a barbecue dinner in Austin.

Oh my god, yes. I remember both nights well. It’s good to talk to you again.

I know you worked with Kevin Hart before as a writer on Night School, but did that directly lead to this film? Did you write this for him?

Unless there’s somebody attached already, I tend to write scripts trying to make the characters as real to myself as possible, and then once we finish the script, we’re like “Let’s talk about casting.” Then both Netflix and I had the same idea about getting Kevin Hart. I’d worked with him years ago on Along Came Polly, which he had a small part in, when he wasn’t a global icon. But then we reconnected on Night School, where I helped rewrite the script a bit, so we were in each other’s orbits again. So when he came on board, there was another big rewrite to tailor it to him.

How does that process work exactly? Do you work with him directly?

He’s a super-smart guy, so he has thoughts. What Kevin does is you get on a call or a Zoom, and he riffs. You’re just watching his mind work, and he throwing idea out, and I’m trying to write stuff down as fast as humanly possible. In my mind, I’m thinking “I can’t do that. That’s insane. There’s no way I can do that,” and by the end, his voice is in my head, thinking about what can work for him. His big thing was “I want to be a fish out of water as much as possible. I thrive in that.” He knows what works well for him. So the whole sequence where they go out into the desert is new, it came when Kevin got involved. So I work on it with my producing partner Lauren [Hennessey], and we talk through the scenarios, talk about Kevin and what he’s wishing would happen, then I write with him in mind, tailor the dialogue to him. I’ve done that for actors my whole career; that’s what you do in these circumstances.

Going back to the original idea that you had, where did that come from? Do you know people in somewhat similar circumstances? What I appreciate about the movie is that both parents have doubts about their parental role, which I’m guessing is fairly common.

Yeah, for sure. I had observed a lot of these powerful, talented women who were going into the workforce and killing it, and their husbands would stay home, and that felt very modern as a dynamic, and it wasn’t something I witnessed as a kid. There just weren’t a lot of stay-at-home dads when I was growing up. But as I saw it more and more, I thought that it was interesting. Now, these men I was observing weren’t all deeply insecure, but I’m trying to make a comedy, so I needed to find his Achilles’ heel, which is that he overcompensates, and that’s where that idea came from. And he has this wife who’s killing it in the architecture world and traveling and meeting all of these interesting people. If he could just relax, everything would be fine, but he’s so uptight and unsure of his place in the world that he messes everything up. So he needs to evolve. With Regina’s character, I grew up with a working mom who had a very busy career but was also a devoted parent, and that’s hard, and I wanted to honor that. Women are expected to do more with kids, even in this day and age, and I wanted to write about that and honor these women who do it so well.

And I don’t think you’re making fun of these scenarios, but it’s the insecurities that make it funny. Regina and Kevin have worked together something like seven times before, so clearly they have a chemistry that works and they know how to play off each other. Back to the writing, how do you write for people that have that relationship already so firmly established? Or do you just write it and let them take over?

I write it as well as I can and try to make the dialogue as natural and grounded as I can. To me, it’s real. And then you get these brilliant actor who have this easy-going chemistry, and my job is to stay out of their way. Yes, I guide and say “Can we do this and that?” I’m directing, for sure. But they are so good together, it’s not like I have to push them to get to a real place or comedic place. I have to help make them feel like a real couple going through these trials and tribulations.

You mentioned the desert sequence. Going into this, I thought the whole movie was going to be basically set in the desert during this multi-day birthday party for Huck. But every 15 or 20 minutes of this movie, you change it up. There’s a party movie here, there’s a family drama going on with Regina and her parents, there’s a caper film—the tone changes, and I had no idea where you were going with this. Was that by design? Did you want to make this more playful by never quite settling into a single tone?

The goal is to keep the tone consistent so you know it’s all in the same movie, but I did want to keep surprising the viewer. Just when you think they’re in one thing, they meet this Uber driver and have adventures with her. Then it’s back to Kevin’s house. I always wanted to keep people on their toes. It’s a comedy, not an action-comedy, but to make it a thrill ride, things keep changing and spiraling.

As much as Mark Wahlberg has done comedy in the past, I think he’s a wildly underestimated comic actor, and he’s funniest when he plays it straight, which he does here. Again, for Huck, what did you want him to embody?

I was trying to tap into the type of person I know who has not committed to a relationship, doesn’t have kids, and lives this free lifestyle where everything is an adventure. And the thing about those people is that you need to find people to join you, and those people tend to get younger as you get older because your adult friends have responsibilities and can’t just take off with you. The key for me is that Huck has a giant heart and just wants everyone to have a great time. Yes, he’s a narcissist because he’s throwing himself a big birthday party every year and has a 50-foot effigy of himself at this party. He’s generous, kindhearted, good-spirited, and I think Mark connected with that. I think he liked that this guy wasn’t a jerk, he’s not giving Kevin bad advice because he thinks it will mess with him; he genuinely believes the advice he gives Kevin is good, even if it’s totally misguided. He just makes stupid choice after stupid choice, but his heart is in the right place.

Was that effigy real? What does something like that do to an actor’s head when he first sees it?

[laughs] I can tell you, it was real, it was huge, and it was practical; it was not visual effects. I remember Mark, who has done everything and been famous since he was a teenager and seen it all, walking on the set and seeing it and going “Holy shit.” I think that was a first for him.

He and Kevin have fairly different acting styles. When they were together, how did they find that common ground and balance to make the relationship believable?

I think they love each other and genuinely got a kick out of each other. I think they’ve become good friends. But yes, their approaches are really different. Kevin is more in the moment; he doesn’t really prepare the way you might expect, he wants to be fresh and not overthink it. Mark comes in very prepared, knows every line. So it’s interesting; it’s a contrast of styles, and it’s my job to work with those two different styles. That’s a director’s job in general, since so many actors have different ways of working. But the key way, they both committed to their characters, even though their approaches coming in are different, they both come in from a place of character and what real for their characters. “Would I do this? How do I feel in this situation?” And that made it easy to stay on point, throw ideas out, constantly riffing and trying different things, not being afraid to fail. They both have that, where anything goes; it’s just what they brought in when they stepped on set that was different in terms of approach.

Having said that, their approaches to their careers seems like they were designed by a motivational speaker—they just set their mind to it and it happens. I feel like if you put the two of them in a room together, the room would explode.

Oh my god, these are two guys who get up at 4am to work out. They’ve had five business meetings before they get to set and 20 more afterwards. I’ve never worked with actors like that. They’re very focused and committed when they’re on set, but they have a lot going on. It’s impressive.

You have a stacked deck of mostly comedians in a lot of your supporting roles here, but the guy I have to ask about because he’s the truest legend in this movie is John Amos. He’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, from “Good Times” early on to “The West Wing” later and everything in between. Tell me he was as cool as I hope he was. Give me your best John Amos story.

John is an awesome, cool, gentle, sweet man. I honestly didn’t know what he was going to be like because I only knew him from his roles, and he can sometimes play a hard-ass. We put him through his paces because there’s a lot of improv, and Kevin, I mean, there’s a scene where they’re screaming at each other on the phone, and I’m in the other room yelling lines to John, and he’ll do it over and over again. He’ll surprise me with some of his improvs, and I was like “Alright, I didn’t see that coming.” He was awesome. When you work with a legend like that, as well as his movie wife, Anna Maria Horsford…

Yes, and I didn’t mean to leave her out of the conversation. They both have around 130 acting credits on IMDb.

What was cool to see was Kevin and Regina working with them, and the respect they had for these actors who have been doing this at a high level for so long, it was great to watch that.

What do you want people thinking about when they see this movie? I realize this is a comedy, but there are some actual issues at play here, like when are men going to get over themselves and not let these insecurities bend them so out of shape?

The first job is to make people laugh and forget about their problems, sit on your couch, and watch Kevin Hart and Mark Wahlberg run around like idiots. But I do think we’re exploring gender dynamics. Like you said, I just want men to let go of these preconceived notions of what a man is and how to act, and if I’m not providing for my family, I’m not doing my job. It’s way past time to let go of those things. Also, the idea of friendships where just because you take different paths and make different choices doesn’t mean you have to not see each other, you don’t have to be estranged. And that’s what happens in this movie. I find that in my own life. When you’re a parent, you tend to hang out with other parents because you’re all going through the same things. But there’s so much to be gained from other perspectives. If somebody watches the movie and calls an old friend that they’ve lost touch with, that would be awesome.

I know you’ve done a lot of television work in between film jobs. What do you learn from doing TV that you can apply to feature work, in terms of efficiency and economy?

Great question. TV is a great place to learn not to get too precious and knowing what the minimum is you need to get a scene done in an efficient way. We had a good schedule for this movie, but you’re always up against the clock, even on a movie of this size. It’s never luxurious. So that TV training helped me to make the day and get all the footage you need and realize what you didn’t need. “What is the minimum amount of shots I need to get the scene?”

What is the actresses name who played the Uber driver Thelma?

Ilia Isorelýs Paulino.

She’s going to be a superstar. Where did you find her?

She is somewhat fresh out of Yale Drama School, arguably the best drama school in the country, if not the world. So a classically trained actress. And she just auditioned, went on tape. I have a feeling she won’t be auditioning for things much longer. She’ll get offers because she’s so good. She was someone that the second you watched her tape, you’d say, “Alright, she’s incredible. We have to get her because she’s going to book a Steven Spielberg movie. We have to jump on this.” She’s funny, smart, inventive, and one of the joys of making this movie was seeing Mark and Kevin with her because we didn’t know her. With Regina, like we talked about, she and Kevin have this established, easy-going chemistry. He didn’t know Ilia; she just showed up on set and suddenly, there’s a six-foot three-inch woman towering over him, and she just cracked him up. She was fearless, right there with Mark and Kevin, pushing the attitude. She’s phenomenal.

She’s the fourth lead, as far as I’m concerned. Do you know what you’ll be working on next?

Yeah, next I have an animated movie that I’m co-writing and producing at Netflix. It’s going to be announced soon, so I can’t say much, but it’s an original idea. It’s got music in it, and I’m very excited to dive into that. It’s inspired by an idea that’s something my daughter experienced, so that makes it even more fun. So I’ll start writing that very soon. And then I’m working on a couple of original ideas that could be my next movie as writer/director/producer.

Are you treating that animation project like a musical?

It’s got a lot of music in it, but it’s not a musical. The characters don’t break into song, although when done well, I love that. It’s got a lot of music woven throughout the movie, but it is not a musical per se.

John, it’s so great to see you and chat again. Best of luck with this.

Yeah, man. It’s great to reconnect. See you down the road.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

Plan Your Life with 3CR Highlights

Join Our Newsletter today!